After over a decade of success writing and starring in The Office and The Mindy Project, actress and comedienne Mindy Kaling has ventured into writing for film, and the words of her debut feature screenplay are translated into the terrific workplace comedy Late Night. Kaling’s years of experience in writer’s rooms over the years infuse the engaging narrative set in the production of a late-night talk show with a dedication to realism, hilarious dialogue and optimistic social commentary.
An aging comedienne hopes a female perspective in the writer’s room saves her late night talk show.
In the age of streaming, several tech companies have crafted movie studios to create a plethora of entertaining content for consumers to watch right from their home theater setups. Whether it be the juggernaut Netflix, the newest arm of the Walt Disney corporation in Hulu, or the niche app Shudder, these platforms have also given filmmakers a home for their passion projects that otherwise wouldn’t be deemed profitable with a theatrical release. Another outlet that’s gained popularity in recent years has been Amazon Studios. Founded in 2010, Amazon Studios has prided itself on a release strategy that ensures a dedication to the theatrical experience of movie-watching; while Netflix prefers to release their high-profile movies in theaters and on their streaming platform at the same time, Amazon chooses to release their films in theaters months before their eventual arrival on Amazon Instant Video.
From the heavy humanist drama Manchester By The Sea to the endearing and fresh romantic comedy The Big Sick, the results have kept mid-budget cinema alive for the time being. After acquiring distribution rights to it at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Amazon Studios makes its first release of the summer in the form of Late Night, a dramedy that pulls back the curtain to reveal the goings-on behind the scenes of a late-night talk show. Through direction by Nisha Ganatra and a screenplay by actress and comedienne Mindy Kaling, Late Night succeeds as a funny and female-centric comedy with substance, consisting of biting commentary about the experience of working in entertainment, sexism, racism and ageism in contemporary society, and the psychology of aging celebrity.
Late Night follows Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), who is a host of her own late night talk show, Late Night With Katherine Newbury. She has racked up a plethora of awards throughout her career, but in the beginning of the film, the show is in danger of getting cancelled because of Katherine’s preference for intellectuals appearing as guests on her show, and stale, outdated monologues supplied to her by a writing staff of all straight, white males.
Worried about the future of her show amidst falling ratings and accused of being a woman who hates women, she makes a diversity hire to her writing staff in the form of Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a lifelong fan of Newbury’s show who works at a nuclear plant by day, but dreams of standup comedy and writing in television by night. On a whim, she applies for an open position on Newbury’s staff and gets the job, only to be put through the ringer by Newbury’s unapproachability, as well as the toxic masculinity of her male co-workers on her quest to change the show’s material and inner workings for the better.
The major strengths of Late Night are in its writing. After her big break as Kelly Kapoor in The Office and success as the star/showrunner of The Mindy Project, Kaling’s first feature screenplay not only portrays the experience of working in the writer’s room of a late night talk show, but also the daily conflicts of a novice in her field as the beneficiary of affirmative action with authenticity and light-hearted realism. Right from the get-go, Katherine tells Molly to her face that she’s a diversity hire and nothing more, is referred to by a number Katherine assigns her rather than her name, and struggles to keep up with the high standards and long hours that are commonplace in this niche of the industry, regardless of prior commitments. These give the audience a look inside Molly’s struggle and endear us to her as she uses a wastebasket for a chair and sheds private tears in the office of a co-worker when the inconsiderate slobs in her writing staff occupy the long-empty women’s restroom.
But Molly overcomes it all through determination and passion, and fires back at every obstacle thrown in her path, whether it be through hilariously savage retorts to sexist remarks she overhears from her co-workers, or assertiveness toward Katherine after she skips over Molly’s jokes for her opening monologue. However, Molly learns along with us that her idol is not unlike most celebrities: Katherine the TV host is revered for breaking boundaries as the first host of her gender on the late night scene, while Katherine the woman is an insanely driven enigma who balances the acts of caring for her ailing husband Walter (John Lithgow) with the struggles of breaking down the walls of her elitism and anxieties about an uncertain future as an aging, British comedienne, for whom roles are rare. Thompson aids in making Katherine a compelling character as she adapts to a new, progressive era with a stellar lead performance that has her pondering her future aloud to herself as the camera circles around her in one pivotal scene, to another where she delivers a stream of witty snark to shock-comic Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) about hosting an event sponsored by an energy drink.
The jabs don’t stop there, as Kaling’s script contains a grab bag of biting, sharp lines of dialogue that bolster Late Night’s social commentary about ageism, sexism and racism in contemporary society while eliciting constant laughs, including a new satirical segment of her talk show where Katherine hails a taxi for two African-American men because “That’s what white saviors do!”, and a recurring joke about the difference between a factory and a chemical plant.
And it’s evident that the supporting ensemble is having fun taking part in the banter, from Hugh Dancy’s turn as womanizer Charlie, to Amy Smart’s sporadic but always momentous appearances as Katherine’s television executive. It’s also worth noting that Ganatra’s visual eye as director isolates Katherine, Molly and her band of writers in wide shots that surround them with the vastness of New York City and the pressures of their industry.
That said, if there’s one issue with Late Night, it’s that it takes a while for the film to reach the peak of Kaling’s biting sense of humor, and the journey to that point consists of mostly dry barbs that are hit-and-miss, especially with those unfamiliar with the subtleties of verbal comedy. Despite that, the trip is well worth the travel, because like Booksmart before it, Late Night is a hilarious, female-driven film that dedicates itself to portraying its workplace story with realism and a light heart. It also balances its hilarious dialogue and sharp social commentary with optimistic ideas about a progressive future that never come off preachy thanks to the modest tone of Kaling’s story and Ganatra’s direction. Late Night will have endeared audiences of all diversities, ages and genders by the end, and to use Katherine’s catchphrase, it earns the privilege of your time.
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